Thought Leadership

Will the world cup lose its marketing magic?

In the light of human rights abuses and winter scheduling questions remain as to how brands will interact with this year’s tournament.

Georgie Moreton

Assistant Editor, BITE


This year’s World Cup is set to be a World Cup like no other. No less the fact that the tournament is in winter with earlier matches (try convincing your CEO for a long lunch at the pub) but the host country has been no stranger to controversy. 

Reports earlier in the year have suggested that more than 6,500 labourers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka have died in the country since Qatar was awarded the World Cup in 2010. Thirty-seven of these deaths were directly linked to the construction of stadiums for the tournament. According to Human Rights Watch, Qatari authorities have not investigated the causes of deaths of thousands of the labourers and have labelled a large number of them ‘natural causes' . On top of this, the countries lack of LGBTQ+ rights meaning that being gay is punishable by prison time or death is unnacceptable to fans and a regressive moment for the sport. 

In an era of brand activism and accountability, Qatar’s human rights record is in stark contrast to many brand purpose statements. Will the World Cup and its sponsors be tainted by protests?

Historically the World Cup poses a huge marketing opportunity for brands but this year the prospect of being an official sponsor may be less sought after in favour of interacting with the games in a more light touch way. The tournament's ties with Christmas certainly makes for some exciting creative prospects. Will Kevin the carrot travel to Qatar? Yet joking aside the controversy surrounding the tournament places marketers in an unusual predicament. With this in mind, we are asking industry leaders: Will the world cup lose its marketing magic?

Steve Howell

Steve Howell .jpeg

Creative Partner

Dark Horses

This World Cup has been dodgy from the moment it was awarded, bringing into question corruption at FIFA, the working conditions of its construction and the LGBTQ+ rights in the host nation.

But the truth is, come kick off, most of us will still tune in. And that’s the sad reality of sportswashing. Whether you like it or not, people don’t like silly stuff like human rights getting in the way of football. 

So where are all the purpose-led activist campaigns when you need one? 

It’s one thing standing up for something, it’s another to point the finger at a corporation as powerful as FIFA. 

And no brand is brave (or stupid) enough to actually ask its consumers to boycott the World Cup, no matter how much we all agree with the principle. 

For those that have already made their bed, the magic will still be there –Pepsi have already dropped their new World Cup campaign and it’s a joyful one-up-manship extravaganza akin to World Cup campaigns gone by. 

But for the rest, while a World Cup at Christmas should be a marketer’s wet dream, it’ll never be what it could be. And that kind of says it all really.

Tamara Littleton

Tamara preferred bio smaller (1) (1) (1).jpg


The Social Element

It’s clear that the choice of Qatar as host of the FIFA World Cup is problematic given its record on human rights, LGBTQ+ people and the already chequered history of the stadium itself. The responsibility for this lies with FIFA. It has banned LGBTQ+ discrimination in its statutes and already had at the time Qatar was selected – a country which punishes same-sex relationships with prison time.

This puts brands into a tricky position. Those who have long been involved in sponsorship have an impossible choice. Should they abandon the sport and in particular the players who are not at fault? I’d suggest a fair and balanced approach might look like that of Denmark's kit manufacturer Hummel, which is removing its logos from team kits to ensure they support the Danish team through the partnership, without endorsing the host nation. They are also including a black shirt to mourn those who died in construction. Even without removal of logos, the idea that we can and should support our teams without endorsing FIFA’s choice is one I expect to see many brands embrace. This could be an opportunity for organisations and players to bring about change, or at least raise awareness. However, they do need plans in place – how will they respond if an LGBTQ+ employee is arrested? There are opportunities for brands to show support of human rights at this World Cup, but it needs careful planning

Louis Persent




It’s the final countdown to the men’s World Cup and I’m struggling to see much magic. We’re stuck in a holding pattern awaiting the first kick-off, solemnly circling around the cold hard truth that corporate sporting greed has made a mockery of morality. I don’t envy the official sponsors. What to make of a brand that ran a campaign for Pride month, but that’s paid to be associated with a tournament held in a country with a woeful record on LGBTQ+ rights – a place where I might be arrested for just being myself?

But when the tournament starts, who will be able to resist? Not me. And that’s the thing. The sponsors know it. I know it. You know it. Free-to-view football + national pride = an irresistible recipe for fans and brands alike.

So maybe the joke’s on me. On all of us. But here are two get-out-of-jail cards to consider:

1: Unlike the World Cup, Christmas hasn’t been shunted back half a year and, as far as I know, Santa’s workshop upholds fair labour conditions. Maybe the World Cup just isn’t worth the worry.

2: Working with Arsenal it’s been an honour for our agency to play a part in the rise of a new football culture: Supercharging the marketing of the women’s game, telling stories of local and global community, doubling-down on support for LGBTQ fans, collaborating with inspiring creatives and new collectives. The World Cup is the biggest celebration of football out there and, faced with a tarnished tournament, fans want to feel good about the sport they love. I’m certain that brands can play a part in that.

Hugh Kupfer




It feels slightly crass to talk about ‘opportunity’ in the context of an event tainted by tragedy. That marketers might feel hesitant toward having their brand seen to endorse this year’s tournament is understandable. 

Yet the World Cup draws some of the largest linear TV audiences, and this year shouldn’t be different. Despite the unusual timing, more than a third of UK adults will follow the event. It’s rare to reach 10m+ with a single message in a single spot, so justifiably brands have been buying up the surrounding media.

With the audience there, the question is more likely one of messaging. No doubt brands with purpose at their centre will be looking to use them to great impact. However, what consumers want to see might not be a statement on the tournament’s geopolitical issues. 

Among the cost of living, pandemic grief, global politics and conflict, now is a chance for brands who ‘put the customer first’ to make good on promises made in better times. 

Can they ease the burden, share good stories, Christmas and World Cup cheer?

If their values truly serve the customer, let’s remember Bernbach, as a value isn’t a value unless it costs you something.

Hannah Wright

Hannah Wright v2.png

Head of Data & Analytics


The World Cup this year is marred by reports of worker deaths in the construction of the stadium, and Qatar’s appalling stance on homosexuality – with Stonewall suggesting LGBTQ+ football fans will not be safe attending. These are not new issues, as the 2018 host, Russia, doesn’t exactly welcome LGBTQ+ people and the World Cup has a history of construction fatalities.

There is a fine line for brands to tread between brand activism and virtue signalling. Hummel’s monochrome Denmark kit has been questioned for being a profit and awareness driving stunt, despite its intention to act as a protest to the host country. It has been highlighted, as with many clothing manufacturers, that their kits are produced in locations that have concerns around human rights and labour laws, raising criticism of the brands campaign to make a stand against Qatar.

It is disappointing that it will overall be business as usual. Since Qatar was awarded the World Cup, Fly Emirates and Sony have left the FIFA bubble, but many key sponsors remain. Ultimately, billions will still watch, and brands will still seek sponsorship and exposure, keeping the ‘marketing magic’ flame alight. We may be at a turning point where consumers are critiquing brands much more around the values and ethics they align with (or not), but brands think more broadly than an isolated campaign around a flash-in-the-pan moment. 

Agencies Featured